Arsenic may have killed Ann Calvert

January 08, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Scientists have begun to wonder whether Ann Wolsey Calvert, first wife of Maryland's first chancellor, was poisoned by arsenic at the end of her life.

"My personal feeling is that she was very, very sick, and she was tending to take -- or someone was giving her -- stronger and stronger medicine trying to help her, and she finally got too much," said Mark Moore, of the Armed Forces Radiobiology Institute.

Mr. Moore analyzed tissue samples from Mrs. Calvert, whose remains were found in one of three 17th century lead coffins unearthed two years ago in St. Mary's City.

The arsenic findings were presented yesterday at the 28th annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology.

The coffins were discovered in 1989 beneath the site of the Great Brick Chapel in St. Mary's City, Maryland's first colonial capital. They were unearthed late in 1992.

Researchers are reasonably certain that one coffin held Mrs. Calvert, who died about 1679, when she would have been in her late 50s or 60s. Her husband, Philip Calvert, was a half brother of the second Lord Baltimore. Mr. Calvert, who died in 1682 or 1683, is thought to be the body in the largest of the three coffins.

The 6-month-old infant girl found in the third coffin may be a child of Mr. Calvert and his second wife. The baby died from complications of rickets and malnutrition.

Ann Wolsey Calvert was terribly sick, suffering from a chronic infection of her right leg, the result of a badly healed fracture several years before her death.

She also had lost most of her teeth. Those that remained must have been painful and nearly useless.

"It is as bad a dental pathology as you can imagine," said Dr. Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution. "She was chewing on the stubs of the roots of her teeth."

She was seriously malnourished, perhaps because of her teeth, and suffered from arthritis and osteoporosis.

Dr. Henry Miller, research director for Historic St. Mary's City, said medicine containing arsenic was sometimes rubbed on the gums as a treatment for toothache in the 1600s.

It may also have been used to treat Mrs. Calvert's leg infection.

Neutron Activation Analysis tests supervised by Mr. Moore revealed that the arsenic in Mrs. Calvert's hair climbed from 4 or 5 parts per million in sections that grew many months or several years before her death, to 175 parts per million near her scalp.

Her tissues averaged 144 parts per million.

"That's a huge amount," Mr. Moore said. Modern people average .13 to 3.7 parts per million.

The sample taken from Mrs. Calvert's abdomen revealed arsenic in concentrations of up to 1,000 parts per million, he said, and "that would have been enough to do her."

"There's all kinds of ways it could have happened," Mr. Moore said. She may have ingested it. Or, it may have been an embalming substance left there after she died. If that's true, Mr. Moore said, the embalmer did not apply the material evenly, because other tissues had much lower amounts.

Arsenic also was used in cosmetics of the day, but analyses found no evidence of arsenic on Mrs. Calvert's skin.

Mr. Moore said he found no unusual amounts of arsenic in Mr. Calvert's remains.

Researchers at St. Mary's City will look at copies of the medical texts known to have been in Mr. Calvert's library to determine what arsenic-based medicines the family might have used, and why.

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